Report of Meeting of Higher Education Committee, 27 May 2020

Members of the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) met online for a half-day meeting to discuss the union’s position towards the two disputes, including the Four Fights offer.

HEC voted:

  1. To support the Day of Action on 1 June called by the National Education Union (NEU) focusing upon casualisation in HE.
  2. To call a Special Higher Education Sector Conference in early July (Motion 3, passed nem con) to discuss formulating campaigns and a draft sector-wide claim to address the threat of redundancies and pay cuts currently facing the sector. This could be a real opportunity to rebuild the fightback over casualisation begun in the Four Fights dispute.

The main part of the meeting attempted to deal with the Four Fights offer from UCEA. This is marginally improved over the offer before the last 14 days of strike action was called, but real questions about its implementation have been raised. There is no increase on pay. However, the wider problem is that instead of addressing casualisation, equality and workload problems, universities are actively looking to sack casualised staff, take no action on pay gaps and to intensify workloads!

The questions HEC had to address were:

  • should we accept or reject the offer,
  • should HEC put the question to members, and
  • what are the key strategic priorities for the union?

The HEC meeting took place after some short but quite extensive consultation with branches that was reported to the two Branch Delegate Meetings the day before. These branches voted with weighted votes.

In the Four Fights dispute, the meeting recorded 96 votes to Reject the UCEA offer and 55 to Accept. But a second question caused considerable debate.

This asked whether HEC, a Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) or ‘the members’ should decide about the offer, with a clear majority voting for the latter.

This might lead one to conclude that the democratic thing to do would be to put out an offer that branches had called on HEC to Reject out to members — but with a recommendation to Reject! This certainly was the line taken by Jo Grady and the ‘IBL’ faction.

However, there were several clear problems with this interpretation.

  • Delegates complained about Q2 simply because it was not a question that they had been asked to put to branches. If they voted to Reject, they believed that was sufficient.
  • Until the morning of the Branch Delegate Meeting, officials had told reps that an HESC was out of the question.
  • The question had no option “do not accept, do not reballot now, but rebuild the dispute” — the position that a majority of branch delegates reported their branches had arrived at.
  • In the meeting, few branch delegates reported that the option of “ballot members with a recommendation to Reject” was the position arrived at by their branch meetings.

It is worth noting that Sally Hunt was heavily criticised for interpreting questions of a branch delegate meeting in order to end the USS dispute in 2018.

HEC representatives all agree that whatever mechanism was involved, members would be consulted as part of building a new fightback. But the differences between Left and Right turned on the questions of when and how.

After a debate, HEC voted on an emergency motion to call an online Higher Education Sector Conference to debate this issue. This was lost on a tied vote 20:20. However HEC had already voted to organise a Sector Conference to debate a new sector-wide claim to UCEA (Motion 3). Given that there is no agreement to rush to reballot, the sensible position would be to address these issues at that conference.

HEC then moved to vote on a recommendation from the national officials to put the offer to members. This fell 18 votes with 21 votes against. Due to lack of time remaining motions were remitted to the next HEC meeting.

Where does this leave the union?

There may be another call to have an HEC meeting. Alternatively it might be felt that the best way forward is via the Special Sector Conference supported already (see above).

We would advise branches to call online General Meetings in the next two weeks. Many are fighting their local employers in any case.

  1. We need to renew the debate in the branches about how to take the Four Fights dispute forward. This can feed into the Special Sector Conference in July, and pass motions which may be submitted to HEC in the interim.
  2. Branches can submit motions (of 150 words or less) to the HEC via an existing HEC member (UCU Left members of the HEC can be contacted to do so). Branches can also submit motions directly to the national Head of Higher Education, but these would be recorded only for information.)

Other motions were passed, including supporting a campaign over fair rents and a ban on tenant evictions, an issue that particularly affects low-paid staff and students, and to launch an organising campaign in support of casualised staff.

In the immediate, branches should start planning to organise protests on the Day of Action on June 1st, and/or support NEU protests.


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